Defiant Merkel says refugees not taking away benefits from Germans

By Andrea Shalal BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose conservative party faces possible defeat in an election in her home state on Sunday, rejected charges by anti-immigrant critics that her government was spending less on Germans due to a large influx of refugees. In an interview published in Saturday's edition of Bild newspaper, Merkel also strongly defended her decision, one year ago this weekend, to open the door to hundreds of thousands of refugees mostly fleeing conflicts in the Middle East. "We did not reduce benefits for anyone in Germany as a result of the aid for refugees. In fact, we actually saw social improvements in some areas," Merkel said. "We took nothing away from people here. We are still achieving our big goal of maintaining and improving the quality of life in Germany," she said, a day before a critical vote in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The big influx of refugees and migrants has dragged her approval ratings to a five-year low of 45 percent, but Merkel was unapologetic and said, faced with the same situation today, she would act no differently. "On that weekend (in 2015) it was not about opening the border for everyone, it was about not shutting it to those who had made their way to us from Hungary, on foot and in great need of help," she told Bild. Far fewer migrants are arriving in Germany now due to border closures in southeastern Europe and to a deal between Turkey and the European Union whereby Ankara agrees to take back people leaving its shores for Greece in return for accelerated EU accession talks and visa-free travel for Turks to the bloc. "RIGHT THING TO DO" Merkel, who is contemplating a bid for a fourth term as chancellor in next year's federal election, has cited intense efforts to integrate refugees through language courses and other help, but has also pressed for quicker deportations of those whose asylum applications have been denied. The German government repatriated 21,000 people last year and 35,000 in the first seven months of 2016. "It's completely clear that a year like last year cannot be repeated, which is why we have taken the measures we have. But it was the right thing to do that we rose to this humanitarian responsibility and continue to do so," Merkel said. Merkel's Christian Democrats are polling neck and neck in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern with the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has been siphoning away conservative voters with its virulent anti-refugee stance. She urged voters at an election rally in Bad Doberan, a small town in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, to keep the region's current center-right coalition government in power. "It's going to be a tight race. Every vote counts." (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Gareth Jones)